The critical theme of the high holidays is the hope that we will be written and sealed by God in the Book of Life. But the truth is, most of us are probably going to be here next year. Now, one should never take life for granted nor should they believe they are entitled to anything. However, there are plenty of people who didn’t do much last Rosh Hashanah and they still walk the earth, while we said goodbye to great and righteous people in 5782. So if our behavior doesn’t correlate to life and death, why are some of us begging so intensely to be given another year?
As God writes the Book of Life, it says in the prayers, “And individuals are recollected on [this Day] to remember them for life or for death.” Rosh Hashanah as the day of remembrance is a major theme. I’ve written before about what it means for an infinite, omniscient being to remember something, despite the fact that forgetfulness wouldn’t be one of Hashem’s character traits. But I think there’s another way to look at this theme of memory. Less about whether God remembers, but what we remember.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
We like to think of our memories as file cabinets for the recorded moments of our lives. We know they aren’t perfect, full of gaps or foggy in places, but the parts that are crystal clear are something surely we can trust. However, science has found that memories have more in common with imagination than they do with transcription. People tend to remember how an event or moment made them feel and they reimagine the moment to accommodate that feeling. In short, memory is more about constructing a story than it is about recalling history. As Daniel Schacter of Harvard University puts it, “Even though we tend to think about memory being all about the past, it is really all about helping us prepare for the future.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Zt’l makes another illuminating insight about how memory functions.
“Smartphones and tablets have developed ever larger memories, while ours and those of our children have become smaller and smaller. Why bother to remember anything if you can look it up in a microsecond on Google or Wikipedia? But this confuses history and memory, which are not the same thing at all. History is an answer to the question, ‘What happened?’ Memory is an answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ History is about facts, memory is about identity. History is about something that happened to someone else, not me. Memory is my story, the past that made me who I am, of whose legacy I am the guardian for the sake of generations yet to come. Without memory, there is no identity, and without identity, we are mere dust on the surface of infinity.”
It’s this very notion about using memory to both move forward and construct our identity that I think is key for understanding its role in Rosh Hashanah.
The Three Sections
The mussaf service of Rosh Hashanah is comprised of three sections. Malchus, Zichronos, Shofros, aka Kingship, Remembrance, and the Shofar service respectively. Malchus deals with Hashem’s mastery over creation. However, the prayer doesn’t end blessed are you Hashem, the Holy King, like one might expect, but who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance. You’d think blessing “the Day of Remembrance,” would be found in the next section, Zichronos/Remembrance.
How does the Zichronos section end? Blessed are you Hashem who remembers the bris/covenant. It’s within this section where we get clued in on how we are measured in God’s judgement. A covenant is an agreement between individuals. But unlike a business contract where the goal is for each signer to get the best deal possible out of the other, a covenant is a partnership which seeks what is best for both parties. The bris between Hashem and the Jewish people is an agreement built on the best possible outcome, the perfection of the world through the perfection of the Jewish people.
With any plan, one must review necessary steps from time to time. What was the goal? How are we supposed to get there? What’s getting in the way? The map to the path of that goal is the bris.
Rosh Hashanah is also known as the day of judgement. But Hashem isn’t watching our deeds to calculate who deserves death. I don’t believe He’s eager to have anyone meet their end. He’s far more interested in us becoming the best version of ourselves. As proof of this, the final section of the mussaf prayer, the Shofar service, ends blessed are you Hashem, Who hears the sounds of the shofar blasts of His people Israel with mercy. We’re guaranteed a good judgement as long as we choose it. The judgement of Rosh Hashanah is inherently sweet. I mean, the holiday is known for apples and honey.
Choosing Our Story
If we know that memory is how we choose to understand our story, that subjectivity means we can reshape how we view ourselves. We all have fallen short of who we wanted to be in some way. The overconfident ignore failures while the less than confident fixate on those failures. But the point isn’t the failure. We’ve all strayed from the path in someway. That is a given. The key is that we’re engaged in course correcting.
When we think of the Book of Life as our story, we choose the character we want to be. Everybody fails. What makes a good story is that the character comes back after the devastating defeat to achieve a supreme victory.
This is where our choice comes into play. In the story of our lives we may not get to decide when we are successful, but we do get to keep giving ourselves chances. Are you going to settle, letting your failure be a defeat? Or was that set back a necessary step in a hero’s journey? The version of ourselves that is written in the Book of Life is up to us. That can either be the version of ourselves that is content with the status quo, or the version of ourselves that has dreamed of better.